Health precautions and social distancing are vital right now, but it can result in even greater social isolation for our older clients, friends and neighbors. The lack of ways to feel connection, validation, inspiration, and reassurance can be hard on their physical and mental health.  With most in-person contact limited, telephone calls can still be a good way to connect.  For some people, making warm connections over the phone is easy; but for many of us, it can be awkward and limiting.  Here are a few tips to make it go better, based on Care Partners of Cook County’s many years of training companion volunteers.

Presence

Just because you are not present in person, doesn’t mean you don’t need to be present.  This is not a quick business call, made while you are multi-tasking.  Before making the call, pause, take a breath, and settle yourself. Let your worries go and notice the present moment. Think kindly of the person you are calling and your hopes for them and the call. Then dial the number. The person at the other end of the line will feel that you are ‘there’.

Check in

Introduce yourself, and remind the person who you are and why you are calling. Re-inforce your connection.  (I’ve been thinking about you and remembering. . . .)  Ask if how they are doing and if they are needing help. Ask if it’s a good time to talk, if they are comfortable. Maybe ask them to turn down a TV to eliminate distraction.

Listening skills

Ask simple, specific questions inviting them to talk. Listen with openness and respect. I love to catch the tone of my staff on the phone, as they respond to others with curiosity, warmth, laughter and empathy. We all have our own ways of showing interest. As they talk, don’t leave them wondering if the call was dropped because of the silence.  Use minimal encouragers like mmm, wow, oh my, I know, funny, and other assorted murmurs, groans and chuckles to let them know you are there listening without having to interrupt them.

Be real, Be uplifting

Honor and respond kindly to their worries and concerns. Make some tentative guesses to help them articulate their needs or losses. Then find real ways to introduce a sense of connection, hope and gratitude. Ask them how they’ve gotten through other hard times. Get them to notice the present, use their senses or spark their curiosity.

Keeping the Conversation Going

If you can follow their lead, listen and help it unfold with your curiosity. If the conversation lags, you are in charge! Before your call think about topics you could introduce. Try to enter their world and what they are inclined to focus on. “Tell me about when you. . . .”  “Do you like to garden?”  There was a stage when I could hold long, concrete, relaxed, repetitive conversations with my mother, even with her growing dementia. I’d talk simply about being happy to hear her voice and make guesses about the weather where she lived and what she’d been doing. I’d ask if the big birds had come to her feeder, if she was sitting in her chair, had her legs up, was looking at her wall hanging. She’d respond with yes or no, or struggle for words, and I’d answer like I knew what she meant.

Be Flexible, Be Creative

Plan for shorter, more frequent calls. Figure out what works or fills the gap:  a daily morning chat and check-in, FaceTime, a coordinated schedule with other callers, watching a TV show on the phone together, a few texts in addition to the lovely sound of your voice, having them leave a message each morning so you know they are okay, sending a card through the mail or including a card in supplies you’ve arranged to drop at the door (wash hands!). If you can get out, ask if it’s okay when you are out walking to wave through the window, or knock and do a wellness check through the door, or converse across the lawn. Before you say goodbye, make a plan to connect again, so the person you are befriending has something to anticipate.

We are social animals. We are all connected. We will figure this out.  Thanks for all you do.